The Passion Of The Christ was the blunt-force weapon evangelicals were looking for

Photo: Icon Productions
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

“It was the first R-rated movie I was allowed to see in theaters, which was a big deal to me at the time,” Blake, now a marketing and PR professional in Chicago, says of The Passion Of The Christ. Blake was 12 and, as a budding horror fan, felt he could handle the violence everyone was talking about. Besides, like so many kids in the U.S., he’d grown up with the image of a cross-strung Christ, the likes of which hangs in Christian churches across the country. He adds, “My mom was typically the gatekeeper of what I could or could not see, but she seemed to have determined, sight unseen, that The Passion Of The Christ was acceptable.”

She wasn’t the only one. Mel Gibson’s box office-breaking riff on Christ’s crucifixion raked in more than $600 million worldwide (nearly $800 million in today’s money), and, 15 years later, remains the U.S.’s highest-grossing R-rated film of all time. The pre-release buzz over the film’s vicious, pervasive violence deterred few, and kids were shepherded onto school buses and church vans for group screenings. “I also remember her making a comment to me or my brother, something about how seeing it might do me or my brother ‘some good,’” Blake continues. “She seemed to be setting the expectation that this would be a life-changing or faith-affirming experience for one or both of us.”

But he left the theater disturbed. “I don’t flinch often, but The Passion made me flinch.” He remembers two things very clearly: the “brutal violence” and “a momentary personal commitment to start paying attention in church and be a more engaged Christian.” Mission accomplished. At its core, Gibson’s film had one goal: To raise the stakes of modern Christianity by depicting its savior’s sacrifice in the most disturbing way possible.

Blake’s reaction was common amongst a number of the people The A.V. Club interviewed for this article. After tweeting out a call for anyone who felt they viewed The Passion Of The Christ at too young an age, we spoke to more than a dozen people who saw the film between the ages of 10 and 15. Some weren’t allowed to cover their eyes. Some sobbed. One puked in her seat. For nearly all of them, it was framed as an event by their parents, their pastors, their teachers, none of whom seemed to care that it spilled more gore than a Troma flick. It was mandatory viewing, and, furthermore, it demanded a reaction. At many screenings, enthusiastic youth pastors filed to the front of the theater as the credits still rolled. There, they encouraged those moved by the graphic violence on screen to commit (or recommit) their lives to Christ. Disoriented preteens, overwhelmed, shuffled forward, heads bowed, splayed hands and spoken tongues descending upon them.

Brit, a Cincinnati State student who saw the movie when she was 12, describes being “horrified” by the film, while being even more disturbed by the reactions of those around her. “There were plenty of people weeping, of course, but others seemed almost thrilled by it,” she says. “I think they were genuinely joyful about witnessing their deity’s sacrifice. There were many tears and gasps of horror, but underneath it all seemed to be a sense of satisfaction. This is their Jesus fulfilling biblical prophecy, after all, so whatever sadness there was seemed disingenuous to me, since this is what they believe had to happen.” She adds that “sermons afterwards seemed much more energetic and apocalyptic for some time after the film came out.”

“To make the point he was making, Mel had to take what had become a pretty two-dimensional image [Christ on the cross], and give it a new zap,” says Fr. Christopher Robinson, an adjunct faculty member specializing in pop culture at DePaul University. “The best way to do that is through violence, blood, and anguish.” To accomplish this goal, Gibson cast aside the Catholic church’s established guidelines for staging Christ’s death, and found inspiration in The Dolorous Passion of German nun Anne Catherine Emmerich, whose visions have been rejected by the Church—and deemed by most religious scholars to be racist as hell.

The resulting film highlights the violence of the crucifixion, downplays the inspiration factor, and creates clear, identifiable villains. It does so while exuding a veneer of authenticity—albeit one decried by Catholic scholars—thanks to Gibson’s decision to have the characters speak only reconstructed Aramaic, Hebrew, and Latin. The majority of its 127-minute running time is devoted to torture sequences rendered in agonizing slow-motion. Gibson says it’s about “love, hope, faith and forgiveness.” Your church leaders probably did, too. But, for Blake, the excitement was short-lived. So was his reaffirmation. “In hindsight, I don’t think that was inspired by The Passion,” he says. “I think I was assigning a purpose to what I had seen and trying to will that feeling of renewal into existence, because I thought that was how I should have reacted.”

It’s true, especially in hindsight, that The Passion wasn’t a recruitment tool so much as it was a weapon of reaffirmation, one that tapped into wells of emotion that many Christians weren’t finding at church. For a number of Christians, the film had a radicalizing quality, with its bludgeoning dose of cruelty, shame, and guilt serving to galvanize. For those outside of the church, however? Not so much.

Kyle Hanawalt, a co-pastor at Chicago’s Brown Line Vineyard church who was in high school when the film was released, recalls bringing a group of secular friends to a screening. He calls it “a very unsuccessful attempt” at opening up a discussion about God, laughing at the idea that “seeing the brutality done to Jesus would somehow compel them.” He likens their reactions to those of a zombie movie: “Dude, check out that crazy violence!” Hanawalt now says he considers the film “one blip among many” that helped him come to terms with the nature of his faith. “I think the movie was effective if you already bought into a Christian worldview and you were starting to waver on intensity and passion,” he says.

But he also touches on how it was in many ways endemic of evangelicalism in a post-9/11 America. As fear of foreigners swelled and President George W. Bush started wars because “God told me to,” a “real separation” emerged—not one between believers and non-believers, but one between born-again Christians and “lukewarm” ones. The Passion’s fierce intensity mirrored that of the evangelical community at the time, which, in a bid to demonstrate its piety, had begun to favor a performative mode of worship that led to a boom in conference and camp culture, as well as an evolution of immersion in the modern megachurch, throughout Bush’s presidency. So intense was the desire to turn the religious “experience” into an enduring mindset that evangelicals began building churches that doubled as campuses. Banks, gyms, grocery stores, and restaurants resided just outside the pulpit, leading to a culture of isolation.

As Dr. Randall Ballmer, a professor of American religion at Barnard College, told The New York Times in 2002, churches like these shield Christians from “a broader society that seems unsafe, unpredictable and out of control, underscored by school shootings and terrorism.” Particular sects of American Christianity have long sought to cast themselves as victims, but their self-identification as a marginalized community was steadily growing during this era—the “war on Christmas,” for example, arguably reached its zenith during the 2000s. With it blossomed a palpable rage, the likes of which, Robinson believes, is likely what drew them to The Passion. Robinson says he was “shocked” by the fervor with which Protestants embraced the film. “I assumed Protestants, particularly, would have a very hard time with the film because it’s not biblical,” he says, noting that, for them, the film’s presentation appeared to resound as “a revenge story.”

“It’s anger and it’s rage,” he says of Gibson’s direction, which luxuriates in villainous caricatures rooted in anti-Semitic imagery. The men torturing Jesus cackle continuously, smiling with broken teeth and dead, milky eyes. The jeering crowds trailing Christ through his trial are uniformly cruel, spitting and cursing at him. Famously, after numerous cries of anti-Semitism, Gibson removed the English translation of a Jewish character declaring, “His blood be on us and on our children”—words that have long been used to justify Christian anti-Semitism. (They’re still there, just in untranslated Aramaic.) Meanwhile, Mary, the disciples, and a smattering of Roman characters are depicted in the softest, gentlest light, marking a severe contrast between the film’s concepts of good and evil.

Consider this against the guidelines presented in the official Catholic Church document “Criteria For The Evaluation Of Dramatizations Of The Passion,” which reads, in part, that “Jews should not be portrayed as ... bloodthirsty (e.g. in certain depictions of Jesus’ appearances before the Temple priesthood or before Pilate); or implacable enemies of Christ (e.g. by changing the small ‘crowd’ at the governor’s palace into a teeming mob).” It goes on to note that “the Jewish populace, far from wishing his death, would have opposed it had they known and, in fact, mourned his death by Roman execution.”

This isn’t to say that the evangelical audiences flocking to the film carried innate anti-Semitism. Rather, its sneering hordes reinforced the evangelical belief that they, indeed, were the good guys, and would not only prevail, but see their enemies punished. “It’s about revenge and vengeance,” Robinson continues, saying that evangelical viewers believed that “everything I’m watching them do to Jesus is one day going to happen to them. And that kind of religious hatred, that’s where extremism comes from. And it’s hatred of the worst kind, because it’s based in the belief that we’re loved by God and we’re in the image and likeness of God.”

This wasn’t lost on Jewish civil rights organization the Anti-Defamation League, the national director of which sent Gibson a letter begging him to add a postscript that would “implore your viewers to not let the movie turn some toward a passion of hatred.” And though it’s debatable, obviously, the ways in which the film’s fury registers as hatred, it’s hard to deny that Gibson himself is rippling with it. After The New York Times’ Frank Rich criticized the film for its anti-Semitic overtones, Gibson raged, “I want to kill him. I want his intestines on a stick ... I want to kill his dog.” Two years later, while being pulled over for driving drunk, he declared that “the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world.” In 2010, he threatened to kill his ex-girlfriend, Oksana Grigorieva, while spitting racial slurs. Listen to any of the latter incident’s audio evidence and you’ll come away gobsmacked: How can one person be so angry?

Yet many conservative and Christian leaders stood by Gibson, at least up until the death threats. And, as someone who identified as evangelical in the years following 9/11, I can understand why. I saw firsthand how deeply evangelicals longed for someone that would fuck the other cheek and seize the bully pulpit. Bush’s faith, while pervasive, remained cordial. Meanwhile, racism aside, Gibson was a muscular voice for Christ, no matter how he personally defined his Christianity. “Fast forward 15 years,” Robinson says, “and we have evangelical pentecostals who support Donald Trump.” Those who feel they’re bullied often want nothing more than for the bullies to be on their side.

And it’s here that we can see why The Passion was weaponized as it was on the evangelical youth. It was a blunt instrument, a dizzying punch to the temple. It seems an odd tool in light of its ponderousness and gore, but evangelicals have never shied away from disturbing images so long as it suits their message. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s 2006 documentary Jesus Camp films a bunch of eight-year olds sobbing over fetus replicas at a communal church camp, and the 2001 documentary, Hell House, which documents a Christian-themed haunted house filled with drug addicts, school shooters, and victims of botched abortions, finds its pious cast reveling in the blood and trauma of the behaviors it deems sinful. (One teen shrieks with joy after discovering she gets to play the “abortion girl.”) HBO’s 2008 documentary Hard As Nails follows a bellowing evangelist who forces kids to re-enact Christ’s crucifixion—when he’s not asking them to hit him with a steel chair.

That aggression works. David, who’s now an English instructor and PhD candidate at the University of Washington, detailed for me the numbing effect of passion plays, which he’d been subjected to long before Gibson’s movie. He says:

I distinctly remember being shown an earlier film of Jesus being killed at youth camp when I was 11 or 12. I think it was part of a worship service, so there was a lot of emotional music in the mix, too, and all the kids were crying. And I think a lot of us were thinking, “Wow, that guy went through this brutal stuff for me?” It was just so devastating to see someone nailed to a piece of wood and left to bleed out and die—especially when you’re told over and over that this is not fiction. This is real. And then, of course, comes the kicker: We’re told, “Yes, and your sin is the reason that Jesus had to go through this, but he’ll forgive you if you give your life to him.” We’ve just watched the guy bleed out and die, our church leaders are telling us that it’s our fault, and we believe them and of course we feel terrible. At the end of all that, what else is there to do? You commit your life to the guy.

The problem, as nearly everyone I spoke to discussed, is that faith like this is deeply unsustainable. That’s what David learned. Blake, too. Hanawalt, as well, says that the kind of fervor prompted by pieces like The Passion don’t make for an enriching faith. “I couldn’t care less about the fervor and passion that we feel in the moment, or any commitment somebody would say in a moment,” he says, “because I often find the focus on the intensity of your faith—especially at a young and easily manipulated age—almost to be a directly inverse relationship to becoming a mature person where faith actually becomes a long-lasting and edifying part of your life.”

So, is The Passion worth watching? It’s difficult to say, because The Passion was never designed to be entertainment. It’s a statement, a thesis, an interpretation of a handful of the most read passages in the most read book of all time. When Robinson, who calls the film’s violence “pornographic,” is asked what he admires about the movie, he quickly cites the opening scene, when Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane with a demon by his side. “You see that spooky, ghostly, Satanic figure and it’s so beautifully done because it’s fascinated by Jesus,” he says. “There’s no hatred and there’s no interruption. There’s just fascination. And it goes, ‘Who are you?’ And it’s this wonderful human thing of, why are we so different from everything else?”

“So, yeah, I think there’s some transcendence there,” he continues, laughing softly. “But then they’re mopping up all that blood and you’re like, the human body doesn’t even have that much blood. What are you trying to do here?”